Airbus unveils military transporter

European aircraft giant Airbus unveiled the brand new A400M, a high-tech military transport aircraft on Thursday. Huge delays are still clipping the wings of the company, which is struggling to deliver their flagship A380. (Report: R. Martin)


SEVILLE, Spain — Europe unveiled the A400M military aircraft on Thursday, giving the public a first glimpse of a powerful turboprop plane built to supply seven NATO countries with urgently needed strategic airlift capacity.

The plane was developed by a unit of EADS at a cost of 20 billion euros($31 billion), making it Europe's biggest military cooperation project, but has been dogged by problems in producing the West's most powerful turboprop engines.

The first plane assembled was rolled out of a purpose-built hangar in southern Spain into blinding sunlight at a lavish ceremony attended by King Juan Carlos.

Its maiden flight has been pushed back to September this year from January as a consortium led by Rolls Royce and Snecma wrestles with the engine problems.

EADS Chief Executive Louis Gallois told journalists the first flight could be in "September or October".

The A400M was designed as Europe's answer to the ageing Lockheed C-130 Hercules, a powerful workhorse made to ship troops and equipment into the world's most rugged hotspots.

The sale of 180 A400M's to a block of seven European nations — Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg and Turkey -- in 2003 was the continent's biggest ever single arms order. Exports to South Africa and Malaysia brought the total of aircraft sold to 192, but a sale to Chile was cancelled.

"Our transport fleet is becoming obsolete and we need to increase our transport capacity in order to meet the requirements of the new missions all over the world, especially humanitarian but also troop support missions," said Major Fabrice Balayn from the French Air Force's logistics division.

France will take delivery of the first plane in 2010, six to 12 months behind the original schedule.

EADS took 1.4 billion euros in provisions last year to compensate for contract losses triggered by the delays.


The A400M is the first four-engine plane in which the inside and outside propellers move in opposite directions. That means that if one engine is shot out or fails, the plane remains stable and does not lose balance, its designers said.

The aircraft had been kept hidden from view for months despite a sneak preview given to financial analysts earlier in the year. EADS shares have been under pressure partly due to a wider series of production delays on the Airbus A380 superjumbo and the NH90 military helicopter as well as the A400M.

Aircraft rollouts have become a standard feature of the publicity machine which roars into action with the production of a new plane, but have no significance in industrial terms.

The ceremony for the A400M military plane was opened by a child holding a balloon.

Accompanied by deafening techno music, aerial gymnasts leapt across a stage before a giant screen slowly rose to reveal 600 workers holding balloons at the foot of the hulking A400M. A light display bounced off the planes' vast, bulbous frame as the music crescendoed, while the audience of 2,700 dignitaries and military brass rose to give a standing ovation.

The next major industrial milestone will be the successful testing of the engines on a converted C-130 at British firm Marshall Aerospace followed by the maiden flight for the A400M.

Industry sources say an even more crucial test will be how smoothly Airbus Military can move from making prototypes to full-scale production.

It was this transition which scuppered hopes of delivering the A380 on time, with deliveries of the world's largest jetliner now running two years late due to problems in wiring.

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